Questioned Australia’s position on Israeli military detention and trials of Palestinian children and representations made by Australia to Israel on this issue, as well as the blockade of Gaza and housing demolitions in the Palestinian territories.
Does the Australian government have a position on the trial and detention of Palestinian children under Israeli military law in their military courts?
Whole interaction with Mr Matthew Neuhaus (Acting First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT), Mr Lloyd Brodrick (Assistant Secretary, Middle East Branch, DFAT) and Mr Ewen McDonald (Deputy Secretary, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).
Senator RICE: My questions are regarding the prosecution of Palestinian children by the Israelis in Israeli military courts. I heard the questions that Senator Xenophon asked earlier on this afternoon, so it is not going over that ground but following up on some of the issues that he raised and that I also wanted to raise. Firstly, does the Australian government have a position on the trial and detention of Palestinian children under Israeli military law in their military courts?
Mr Neuhaus: From a human rights point of view we have made regular human rights representations around some of those issues that were raised by Senator Xenophon and have been mentioned by you now.
Senator RICE: What representations have been made?
Mr Neuhaus: We have those here. I will ask my colleague, Mr Brodrick, with your permission, to read out some of those representations that have been made.
Mr Brodrick: The government has publicly expressed its concerns about allegations of mistreatment of Palestinian minors in detention. I can give you some of the recent representations. The Australian Embassy in Israel reiterated our interests in and concerns over security and judicial practices towards Palestinian minors, most recently on 23 May 2017, so very recently, with Israel’s Ministry of Defence.
Senator RICE: That is very recently.
Mr Brodrick: Earlier representations had been made on 14 February this year with the Ministry of Justice and previously on 29 September last year, 3 May 2016 and 21 January 2016 with the MFA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel. On 15 January this year the Australian Embassy in Israel also attended a meeting on this issue chaired by UNICEF and then we have had other representations that we have made going back to 2015 that I could repeat. During representations on 14 February this year post raised a number of specific issues around the use of restraints, the mandatory use of audiovisual equipment and the notification of legal rights.
Senator RICE: That is good to hear.
Mr Brodrick: So very active.
Senator RICE: Excellent. I now want to follow up on the issues that myself and Senator Ludlam raised in some questions on notice about former foreign minister Kevin Rudd’s directive from 2011 about Australian officials observing the military trial of minors in the military courts. My first response to that, in asking whether that directive was still in place, was that there did not seem to be much knowledge about it and that, in fact, there had not been any Australian officials that had attended trials of minors in military courts but then in the most recent response, in response to Senator Ludlam’s question on notice No. 410, we were told that Australian officials had, in fact, observed two cases at the Ofer Military Court on 1 February 2012, so now five years ago, and that there had not been a counter directive to not attend them. So, what I was wanting to know was whether, essentially, that directive will be refreshed and whether getting Australian officials to attend and observe the trials in the military courts will be something that will now be asked of our officials there?
Mr Neuhaus: We have nothing to add to the question on notice at this point in time.
Senator RICE: Will you take on notice whether there could be consideration given to asking our officials to attend to observe the military court hearings, given that directive? So, is the directive still in place?
Mr Neuhaus: There has been a change of government since then but we will certainly take that on notice and we can explore that further.
Senator RICE: Thank you. I expect I will follow it up at later estimates.
Mr Neuhaus: Yes, indeed.
Senator RICE: Senator Xenophon asked some questions about the letter from Military Court Watch of December 2015 to which they had not received a response. It asked what specific steps the Australian government would take as a signatory to the Fourth Geneva Convention, with the allegations that the convention was being violated. Can I just confirm whether Australia has taken any steps on the issues raised in that letter?
Mr Neuhaus: As I mentioned to Senator Xenophon I, myself, have not seen that letter. We have only recently taken over the role in the division. We are looking into that matter and we will respond.
Senator RICE: Thank you. There are other issues and I just wanted to know whether the government has raised them. One is what is our current situation with representation to Israel over the Gaza blockade? The information coming out of Gaza, at the moment, is that life is becoming very dire with breakdown in health systems, water, sewerage and potentially very severe consequences for people’s wellbeing in Gaza.
Mr Neuhaus: We remain concerned about the Gaza situation and have also provided support over the years, not into Gaza itself, but with NGOs into the Palestinian territories. I am not aware of any recent representations that we have made on that specific issue.
Senator RICE: Given Australia’s representations on other issues would it be an appropriate issue for Australia to make representations to the Israeli government?
Mr Neuhaus: We could certainly consider that and explore it further, including with the minister.
Senator RICE: The next issue is the issue of the court and the military courts with the use of administrative detention. Have there been representations made to the Israeli government over administrative detention, which is essentially people being detained without charge for indefinite periods?
Mr Neuhaus: Our representations, as we have mentioned, have focused on the situations with regard to minors. I do not know if Mr Brodrick wants to add anything to that. He is indicating that he has got nothing further to add.
Senator RICE: Mr Brodrick?
Mr Brodrick: No, nothing further.
Senator RICE: Nothing further to add?
Mr Brodrick: No.
Senator RICE: So, again, if that could be taken as something to consider making representations on.
Mr Neuhaus: We will take that into account.
Senator RICE: The last area is the ongoing program of house demolitions by the Israeli government in the occupied Palestinian territories. I am informed by Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, that over the last decade, up to June of last year, that Israel demolished over 1,000 homes of Palestinians in the West Bank and 684 buildings in 2016 alone just up to August. Both the US and EU officials have spoken out about these demolitions, so has the Australian government made any representations to Israel about the house demolitions?
Mr Neuhaus: My understanding is that we have expressed concern consistent with our approach to a two-state solution that we support.
Senator RICE: Can you give me some more details of what concerns have been expressed?
Mr Neuhaus: I am unable to do that myself at the moment, unless Mr Brodrick can add to it.
Mr Brodrick: I do not have specific details. We would have to take that one on notice and get back to you.
Senator RICE: Thank you.
CHAIR: Before I go Senator Kitching, Senator Fawcett has some questions in the same space but, Mr McDonald, you wanted to make a comment?
Mr McDonald: Just for Senator Rice. It was one of the questions on our support within the Palestinian territories in relation to the aid program. I think it is important to note the support we give to UNRWA, in particular, which we have been doing, so the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which we have been doing for a number of years in terms of our global funding of over $20 million which actually provides support for those refugees in Gaza and the West Bank. So that is in addition to the additional country program funding we provide. We provide support of around $40 million or so overall. I just think it is important to make that point.